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Wiring the World / THE NEW AGE OF GLOBAL TELECOMMUNICATIONS : Catching Up : Reliable Phones a Distant Dream in E. Europe : Communism's legacy is a quirky, frustrating system. Difficulties stymie nations' efforts to close the economic gap with advanced nations.

July 26, 1994|KITTY McKINSEY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

WARSAW — Engineer Piotr Klonowski had cause for celebration: After 18 years of waiting, his family finally got a phone installed in its apartment.

While many parts of the world charge ahead into the telecommunications age, Poland is still struggling to provide the level of service that the United States reached in the late 1940s. Its situation is symbolic of other less-advanced countries that may bog down in the dust of the revolution.

The Polish phone system, seen by Western business people as a major obstacle to investment in the country just three years ago, has improved dramatically in a short time. Nevertheless, it remains the worst in Europe outside Albania and illustrates a gap that will widen as technologically advanced nations pull away in the new age and reap the economic benefits it will bring.

Today's telecommunications officials in Poland have inherited a phone system brought to its knees by 45 years of Communist neglect. Under the pre-1989 regimes, government phone specialists concentrated their energies on private networks for the secret police, army, Politburo and other adjuncts of the Communist apparatus. They regarded telephones as a luxury for ordinary Poles, except, of course, when the police wanted to eavesdrop on private conversations. In many East European countries, dissidents got phones when others didn't, simply so the authorities could tap them.

"For 40-something years there was no investment in telecommunications," said Jan Rogala, adviser to the president of Poland's state-owned phone company, Telekomunikacja Polska (TPSA). "We inherited a very old and scarce network of lines and mechanical exchanges, many of them hand-operated, some dating back to the 1920s," he said. "Add to this the low quality of the telephone sets themselves and the system couldn't work properly. Maybe God could tell us why it worked at all."

Divine intervention is what Poles often feel they need to get a call through. The phone system is a bundle of quirks unimaginable to anyone used to American efficiency. Making a local call often requires four or five attempts. Busy signals frequently intrude after the first two digits are dialed. It's common to pick up the phone and hear someone else's conversation. On rainy days, the system practically collapses because the copper wires are insulated with paper. Multiline phones are still rare, so it's not uncommon to see five phones on one desk in a government office.

The situation isn't much better elsewhere in the former Soviet Bloc. A Hungarian joke on the difference between Hungarians and Americans: Americans pick up a phone and dial. Hungarians pick up a phone and check to see if it's working.

But it's not funny when it presages lost opportunities to close the economic gap with the advanced nations.

Millions of East Europeans would put up with erratic service if only they had a phone. A few years ago, 2.5 million Poles were officially listed as waiting for phone service, with an average wait of eight to 10 years. To the phone company's dismay, every time it opens a new exchange the increased supply stimulates fresh demand, so it makes little progress in whittling down the waiting list.

Poland has 12 phones for every 100 people, a level that has increased 35% since 1991 but still placed the country at the bottom on the former Soviet Bloc heap in that category, and on a par with the American phones-per-100 level of 1925. "We are not so megalomaniacal as to compare ourselves to the States," laughed Rogala, the phone company's president. "We would just like to reach the level of our neighbors--the Czech Republic and the former East Germany." The goal is to provide every family in Poland with a phone by the turn of the century.

Since 1991, the phone company has spent $500 million upgrading its system with the help of AT&T, the American giant, and Spain's Alcatel and Germany's Siemens. New digital exchanges have been installed in major cities.

The first step Poland made to meet the needs of Western businesses was the establishment, with the help of AT&T, of Komertel, a satellite link that permits instant dialing to anywhere in the world. There are now 10,000 Komertel lines in Poland, but, alas, none are linked to the Polish domestic system.

In 1991, Paul Malcom, then marketing director for the Warsaw Marriott, had three phones on his desk. One for phoning within the hotel, another for dialing within Poland and the third for international calls. His successor, Matthew Shackel, can accomplish all three tasks with a single phone, thanks to Northern Telecom, a North American-standard system now installed at the Marriott. A rarity in the region, it even enables guests to plug fax machines and personal computers into their room phone set.

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